Setting up LIFE in Thailand

I’ve been in Bangkok for a month now, and slowly but surely, I have been adjusting to being a farong (foreigner) here.

My Thai is essentially non-existent, something that I hope to remedy very soon. The plan for an American co-worker and me is to have our grade 6 homeroom kids create a phrasebook for us. Each week, groups of four kids will design a page for our book that will include vocabulary, (spelled in Thai, translated to English, and written in English phonetics) along with pictures. We’re very excited, and we really need said phrasebook soon, but our school’s schedule has delayed the start of this project. There are several more resources here, like Sean’s Rosetta Stone, his various phrasebooks, and the numerous Thai classes that are available in Bangkok…but I really like the idea of learning from my students. At my level, however, I think I’d benefit from all of these things.

So while my Thai is not great, I have at least learned how to give enough directions to the taxi drivers to ensure that they take the highway with the U-turn bridge on the way to school, and to exit the freeway at the correct point on the way back to the BTS station after work. I learned by trial and error. It bothered me when I’d get in a taxi, tell the driver where to go, get an indication from him that he knew exactly where to go, and then end up having to give directions in a language I don’t speak and in a city I don’t know on roads whose names I can’t pronounce. I’ve always (miraculously) ended up in the correct places, and these experiences really only helped me learn the way. I finally have a grasp on how a couple of the roads work and where my school is situated on the university campus. A couple times I was dropped off at a point I didn’t recognize — another great way to develop a mental map. My brain is getting quite the workout.

My brain also hurts every time I have to settle something with the school’s administration. It is absolutely incredible to me the number of separate times that I have had to go into the office to turn something in and to sign paperwork. I was warned by a co-worker that I might think that after I’ve turned in my transcripts and signed my contract that all the paperwork will be taken care of and that I can carry on with my new job; but really, I’d be visiting the office every day for weeks. And this has definitely proven to be true. Here is a list of just some of the tasks I have had to complete in the last month. Please note that they each represent a separate trip to the office:

  • sign contract (first day)
  • sign contract — each of 10 pages on 6 different copies, 3 in English and 3 in Thai (end of 4th week)
  • get copies made of each page of my passport and sign every page
  • turn in transcripts from UCLA and SJSU…oh but wait! This UCLA one is a degree verification form, which proves that I’ve graduated with a BA in Psychology, but is insufficient.
  • after ordering another (thanks, Dad, for the help; I still owe you the $50), turn in the right kind of UCLA transcript
  • get passport photos taken for work permit at MBK, a crazy mall
  • get passport photos taken for work permit (because the first ones were not the right size and I was wearing a tank top…”Not Thai culture”). Luckily, I was shown examples the second time around.
  • provide email address, which they definitely already have
  • provide phone number
  • write a handwritten memo to the Chairperson (a mythical being I have yet to see), requesting a reimbursement for my flight to BKK (Actually, this part was great because it was a successful request!)
  • provide boarding pass as proof that I did fly from SFO to BKK (because my physical being was not enough to prove that I am in Thailand currently)
  • receive medical insurance card
  • get photo taken for the little placard outside the classroom
  • meet with someone about aforementioned reimbursement
  • receive letter to take to the bank to open an account
  • get paperwork and a ride to the health clinic to get a check-up (my blood pressure and heartbeat both proved that I am, indeed, alive and that I am fit to work in Thailand)

And I thought perhaps I had to make all of these separate trips to the office (which is just downstairs, but still!) because I came a couple weeks into the school year, but no. All of the foreign teachers had to go to the office an equal number of times. New employee packet, anyone?

Sean has spoken to me many times about how Thai people seem to all be extremely confused by foreigners and with helping them out. When we try to say something in Thai, we obviously do not pronounce it perfectly, but we’re probably pretty close. But pretty much every time we try, the Thai person with whom we are trying to communicate looks at us like we are aliens from outer space, speaking an alien language. If a non-English speaker were to say to me, “Hay-lo. Where eez da Go-den Kate Brodge?” I would be able to piece together that this person is a tourist in San Francisco who would like to know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge. Even in terrible English, I bet I could figure it out. Here, though, even if we KNOW that we are saying the word pretty decently, sometimes Thai people will just stare. They don’t really help us out with the language. We tend to just give up. And luckily, I have the name of my school written in Thai for my morning Taxi drivers. Not once has a driver understood me when I said the name of the university. It goes like this:

Me: Bai Kasetsart University.

Driver: Eh?

Me: Kasetsart. Kah-set sart.

Driver: [blank stare]

Me: Kah-set saht.

Driver: [nothing]

…I show him the paper…

Driver: Ah! Kasetsart!

If someone said to me “Son Joe-see Stot Univetisy” I would know where they were trying to go! We must be missing something very basic about Thai pronunciation. Or something.

My latest adventure was going to the bank to open up an account. My co-worker showed me on the map where I would need to go, and asked me if I was comfortable going via motor taxi. Many teachers at my school get around utilizing this service, whereby the passenger sits on the back of a motorcycle, sans helmet, and the driver weaves in and out of traffic to get the passenger to his or her destination. I said I would do it, since it was the quickest and cheapest way for me to get to the front gate. Once at the gate, I could walk down Pahonyothin Road for a few minutes and arrive at Krungthai Bank. So I went for it. For 15 baht (about 50 cents) each way, I got a thrilling ride on a motorcycle, sitting side saddle, and holding on for dear life. I should mention that there was basically no traffic and that our top speed was probably 30 mph. I’d observed people doing this thousands of times, and I knew that it was cooler to sit nonchalantly, not holding on, and even texting while being driven. For my first trip, I held on to the driver and smiled like a damn fool the whole way. For my second trip, I held on a little more loosely and was able to snap a couple photos. I won’t be making a habit of this, but it was quite the thrill on my Friday morning. (Yes, I have enough prep time on Friday mornings to do all of this with an hour to spare.)

Once at the bank, I was able to successfully open an account. I now have 500 baht (about $16)  in my account, and I get my first paycheck next week. The bank employees were very friendly and helpful, and luckily one of them spoke some English. But I did have to sign things multiple times — that seems to be a Thai thing. I signed my signature at least twice per page on my application and three times on the same page of my own account booklet. They also have a copy of my passport, which I signed, and then I had to sign their record book. I’ve never signed my name so many times in my life. I feel like Ariel at Disneyland.

I have felt over the last couple of days like I really do LIVE in Bangkok. With a new cell phone, a local Thai number, a job, and a bank account, I’m actually quite established. Sean has been wonderful guiding me through much of this process. I cannot emphasize enough how nice it was to come to Bangkok with an apartment already set up. Sean is a great roommate, and we’re enjoying finally being in the same country for more than a couple weeks at a time. It’s nice for us to have another farong around to enjoy Bangkok together, to laugh at our language barrier, to learn the language and the culture, and to make lots of memories.

The photos are two of my attempts at photography-while-on-motorcycle and one of an origami swan with my name on it, made by one of my students.

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